James tapped the stapler with his knuckles absent mindedly as he thought of the rhythm of a song he used to play on bass guitar in his high school band and tried to remember the name of the singer who really became famous playing “Jack and Diane” before The Air Brushes got hold of the lyrics. He remembered the John part – the lead singer and creator of his band’s name was also John, John Wisenburg – but he couldn’t remember whether the song came out in the Cougar stage, the Mellencamp stage, or the Cougar Mellencamp stage. By the time James and John and Pete (and occasionally Pete’s dad) were playing the little ditty, they were more concerned with being a real hair band and not just geeks playing air guitar around Pete’s mom’s piano – hence, John’s brilliant idea for the band name, The Air Brushes, which he said showed that they were artists. James thought about that. About how the growth of shaggy hair and the imitation of bouncing body movements over rhythmic instruments somehow signified a higher state of being and would attract chicks. He hit the stapler hard with his center knuckle and felt a pang of vibration.
Stacy came in as he stared into the surface of his desk and dropped a file folder on the corner without saying a word. James breathed in, letting the air fill his belly. On the exhale, he let his eyes stray to the folder. More editing. Sheila was out and Ron was swamped and James was having to pitch in this week to help alleviate the workload as submissions poured in and the shredder hummed. At least the stuff he saw had already been read once. He had a preferred method of commenting: scissors.
He held the thick file folder in his hand and guessed at how many pages were inside: two hundred and twelve. No. Two hundred and twenty-one. He nodded proudly to himself as though he already knew the correct count and was congratulating himself on a very, very nice observation.
He read through the first paragraph of the first page of the top manuscript and smacked his lips in boredom. Next.
The second manuscript was heavier and he felt already, as he read the title, “Diane and Jack: A Love Story over Hot Dogs,” for his scissors in the top right hand drawer of his steel desk. He kept the gleaming shears in a case and they reflected him like a mirror along the untarnished length of each blade. He wiggled his fingers, stretching the slightly dry skin out and over his palms and in between his thumb and forefingers like webbing pulled taught and ready to capture. But as he reached out to circle his fingers around the oval hand grips, he noticed for the first time the imprinted letters on the side of the thicker blade that read “MADE IN JAPAN.” He looked up. Where in Japan? A factory? A small factory full of small workers in a tiny impoverished town previously supported only by subsistence rice farming? Or an endless assembly line? No. Surely his scissors had been formed by the hands of a craftsman, or, okay, craftswoman, but someone who understood the value of what they were producing, someone who used the tiny square of felt on the finished piece before gently placing it over the top of the scissors as they lay in the preformed crevices of the red felt lining inside the faux mahogany case. He ran one finger over the smooth lettering. Made in Japan. He needed to know. Pushing the manuscript aside, he dialed Stacy’s extension on the phone.
“Where in Japan would they make scissors?”
“James, I told you that literally cutting out portions of the work is not okay; that is not editing, that’s cutting, which is a part of editing but not in the sense of huge empty spaces in the paper that the author can see through.” She started to hang up.
“No, wait! I’m serious.”
“Okay I won’t cut. Whatever. Now, really, where would you make scissors if you lived in Japan? I mean, how would one know where to go to find, say, a scissor craftsman, or guild even?”
“Well, I don’t know what the Japanese word is, Stacy, but you know what I mean, the local chapter of scissor guys. The quality control or, no, I know, the custom order manufacturer.” James was breathing heavier, thinking of all the possibilities, all the work involved in creating countless designs, sizes, even shapes like cranes and alligators.
Stacy was silent. She had been laughing softly but now she didn’t seem to be moving.
“Stacy? Little help?”
“James, I’m really not sure what you’re talking about. I mean, I understand the words and everything, but I don’t get it. Do you actually want to know where in Japan they make scissors?”
Again, she was quiet. Then she said, “Well, if I were you, and I mean if, I would call down to R&D and see what Kevin says. He might. . .”
James hung up and dialed directly down to Kevin’s office where Kevin answered by saying, “Aaaarrrr ‘n dee, you’ve got Kevin.”
By the time James got through an almost identical exchange with Kevin as he had had with Stacy, his stomach was aching, and he asked Kevin to get back to him with anything he found after lunch.
James left the building and stood for a moment, his face tilted up into the smog-distilled sunlight. He patted his hands at the top of his chest and looked out onto the wide street, the close packed sidewalk, and then he moved against the crowd to the nearest canopied vendor. He watched a shiny man reach into a steaming metal case and retrieve a red wiener that hung out over the ends of the browned bun into which he released it. James asked for mustard, onions, and chili and extra napkins, of which he got one.
Outside of his office building, sitting on the oddly spaced slats of a wooden bench in a designer’s attempt at a courtyard that had transformed into a cigarette depository, James stared down at his hot dog. He noticed how the chili steamed as its grease mixed with the now translucent onions, how the mustard was only visible on the bun and he thought of the manuscript up on his desk. Layered. All of art was layered, or at least, people pushed it to be. A picture of a soup can became more than a soup can in that it was nothing but a soup can. He hated that kind of art. Layers, he wanted layers. Suddenly he heard John’s voice as though he were sitting next to him on the crappy bench: “Layers, man, you’ve got to have layers. It’s the only way you can grow that shit out without looking like a bush.”
James finished his hot dog, crumpled the foil up into a tight little ball and aimed it into the sandy ashbin next to the entrance of the building. It missed. A woman with thick heels
under her thick ankles glared at him through the haze of her cigarette smoke but kept on talking into her too-small cell phone about somebody’s wedding. Looking down at his own feet, then resigning himself to face the sight of his desk again, he heaved up off the bench, pushing with his hands anchored on his knees which hindered his rising and made his legs ache with effort. Why do people do that, he wondered, get up while pushing themselves down?
It wasn’t two minutes after he returned that Kevin called back. But he hadn’t found out anything, he just wanted to invite James to watch boxing at his place with the other R&D guy and the brothers from marketing. James thought of boxing as a masterful display of finely tuned machines, muscle and sinew in coordination with instinct and a sense that was unnamable yet able to anticipate the massive blow of an opponent by the movement of air or eyes. It was an art.
“Sure, I’ll go.”
“Hey, are you almost done with the technical shit? Margie wants that fat one before the end of the day,” said Kevin into the phone.
James pulled his head back over his shoulders and narrowed his eyes. His cheeks moved closer to the inside of his mouth. “Yeah.”
“Cool, man. See ya at six thirty?”
“Yeah. Um, actually, Kevin, I may be late; I have some stuff to take care of.” James hung the phone up as Kevin’s response faded into the distance.
Technical stuff. How long would he have to live like this? Did people not see him? He pulled the drawer out where he had replaced his scissors before leaving for lunch, set the faux mahogany case on the blotter in front of him, opened the lid with his thumbs and watched the light on the shears. He could see the reflection of the light fixture in the top of them. If he moved his head back, the rays twinkled as on the facets of a diamond. He poured all his hopes into the box, over the surface of the metal instrument and felt relieved. As he took them up in his hand he felt alive and he saw a brilliant horizontal image of himself as he began to cut pieces of the fat manuscript like petals peeled away from the stamen. He knew it was more than technical. His hands grasped the creation of a craftsman and finely tuned the clumsy attempts at creation of an amateur. For eight years he had watched words flow over his desk in the guise of fiction and had slowly lent his vision to that of the typist. He was a master.
The thin leaflets of rejected paper curled and wafted onto the floor and into the open drawer. When he was finished, he collected them and placed them folded in the right front pocket of his suit coat. He returned the tangled papers into the manila file and stood. On his way out, he told Stacy that there was a file on his desk for Margie.
In the street, now dim in the shadow of downtown as the sun bowed beneath its stature, James walked through the oncoming workers as though through a tunnel. Wind lifted the ends of his hair, wavy and cut above his collar. He thought of John, both of them. Of long hair and garages and the girls that never did want to sit in his lap even after he learned to play the guitar. He put his hand up to the back of his head and felt the absence of his hair, layers of hair that he threw up into the air and down over his face, then back again in a display of abandon, passion for his music, for his art.
He had cut it. When Pete’s dad had died suddenly in a car accident and Pete was too drunk to play. When graduate school had started to sound better than touring the great United States in a carpeted van. When he had decided to become a writer.
His hand strayed into his pocket and he wiggled his fingers through the lengths of paper inside. Words. He would rearrange them when he got home, using another set of shears and a whiskey.